Environment & Health

Big Oil and Gas Take Aim at Ballot Initiative Process in Colorado

From criminal justice reform, campaign finance, single-payer healthcare and more, some of the country’s most contentious issues will be put to a vote this November. Unprecedented sums of money are pouring in from all directions.

Our August investigation, published with Fusion, focused on ballot initiatives aimed at reigning in fossil fuel extraction in Colorado, and the efforts by the oil and gas industry and the American Legislative Exchange Council to make permanent reforms to the process across the country.

Since that was published, the oil and gas industry have scored some major victories. At the time of publication of the Fusion piece, anti-fracking initiatives appeared destined for the Colorado ballot: one to establish new setback distances between new gas wells and occupied buildings, the other to give local governments power over the process.

After petitioners turned in their signatures, activists told the New York Times that they had submitted enough signatures. Reuters ran a headline announcing: “Colorado anti-fracking initiatives hit signature target.” The oil and gas group Protect Colorado raised more than $16 million to fight the initiatives, 24 times that raised by proponents. According to a Public Citizen review of eight high profile 2016 ballot measures, the 24:1 ratio was the “widest disparity between spending by corporate-backed groups and their mostly non-corporate opposition.” Weeks after the signatures were turned in, the Colorado Secretary of State announced that the petitioners had miscalculated; too many signatures were invalid and the measures would not reach the ballot.

However, another initiative, heavily backed by the oil and gas industry, had. The “Raise the Bar” initiative — which will be voted on in Colorado next week — takes aim at the ballot initiative process itself. If passed, it would add new requirements for proposed constitutional amendments. Along with the 5 percent of voters currently needed to qualify for the ballot, petitioners would need signatures from 2 percent of voters from each of Colorado’s 35 State Senate districts. And once an amendment gets on the ballot, they would need 55 percent of the vote, rather than the usual simple majority.

The campaign to pass the measure is staffed by pro-oil and -gas groups and individuals who have campaigned to defend fracking in the state for years and has received millions of dollars from the oil and gas industry; it is being opposed by a diverse coalition of civil society groups through the #NoOn71 campaign. The reforms would be a big win for those who have long wanted to rein in Colorado's initiative process, which is considered one of the easiest in the country. But the plan will also strike a mighty blow to the anti-fracking movement, which has relied heavily on the initiative process as a tool against a powerful oil and gas industry presence in state politics.

When it comes to fracking in Ohio, the local ballot process has also been in the spotlight this electoral season. This year, volunteer petitioners in four counties — Medina, Portage, Athens and Meigs — gathered sufficient signatures to place new “Community Bill of Rights” county charters on their respective ballots. The measures would establish new county charters and ban fracking, frack waste injection wells and pipelines — throwing a wrench in the planned NEXUS pipeline, which would transport 1.5 billion cubic feet of gas per day. But the measures have been removed from the ballot by the Secretary of State who had been empowered by a court decision last year.

A similar set of measures had come up in 2015 in Ohio and were headed to the ballot until Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted — known for his connections to the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, which organized a fundraiser for the gubernatorial hopeful this spring — claimed “unfettered authority” in removing them from the ballot. Though his argument was struck down by the Ohio Supreme Court, the court opened the door for another technical pre-election challenge process, which was used to keep the 2015 and 2016 measures off the ballot.

The Secretary of State was given power to decide whether the proposed county charters, commonly likened to local constitutions, satisfy one particular state constitutional requirement, despite legal precedent in Ohio that restricts the Ohio Secretary of State from more generally ruling on the substance or constitutionality of initiatives before they go for a vote. After the 2015 decision, petitioners, with little guidance from the state, went to great lengths to satisfy the requirement. However, the state was able to adapt its standards to once again keep the initiatives off the ballot.

As the ballot initiative rises in popularity, reforms to make it harder for regular citizens to partake and precedent-setting court decisions that restrict the process take on new political significance.

About the reporter

Simon Davis-Cohen

Simon Davis-Cohen

Simon Davis-Cohen is a freelance investigative journalist from Northeast Portland, Oregon.